Sometimes (OK, most of the time), turning out like our parents isn’t such a bad thing. Take, for example, fiddler player Natalie Padilla (that’s puh-dill-ah, by the way).
Padilla was around two when her mother, Nancy, looked beyond her fiddle and off stage — Padilla thinks they were at the Targhee Bluegrass Festival in Wyoming — to see her daughter holding two sticks perpendicular to one another, one tucked under her chin, the other sawing back and forth. The young Natalie swayed to the music of her make-believe fiddle, and Nancy decided it was time to get her youngest daughter a violin of her own.
It wasn’t just Nancy who passed on the musical genes. Natalie and her older sister grew up at bluegrass festivals, watching their mom play fiddle alongside their dad on upright bass in a band called Wheel Hoss.
At home in Montana, their mother also taught a youth fiddle group called the Gallatin Valley Junior Fiddlers, who performed around the county regularly. The early exposure, especially to other young musicians, drew both Padilla sisters to the violin.
Natalie has made the fiddle her life’s work, recently completing her second full-length solo album, Fireweed, a collection of original material that puts a modern spin on the foundations of traditional folk sounds. She’s set to release Fireweed on Sept. 6 with a concert and — Padilla’s really excited about this — square dancing at Altona Grange Hall in Longmont.
As little more than a toddler, Padilla began studying Texas-style fiddle with her mother and was winning contests by the time she was 6 years old: first there was the Montana State Pee Wee Fiddle Contest, then she became the National Small Fry Fiddle Champion. As a larger fry, Padilla won a slew of adult championships at the national and regional levels, including the National Young Adult Fiddle Contest and RockyGrass Fiddle Contest.
When we chat on the phone, Padilla has just wrapped up teaching at a fiddle camp in Boston and is back home in Lyons. She works as an instructor of folk and bluegrass fiddle at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. But Padilla’s interest in the violin has always been expansive.
“Growing up, we lived in Belgrade [Montana], which is just outside of Bozeman,” she says. “Belgrade did not have orchestra programs… but there was an honor orchestra program in Bozeman, just down the road, and so I started going to that little school every week, in the mornings really early. And I think that might’ve been the first time I saw a cello and a viola, and as a little kid you’re like, oh, this is kinda cool.”
Like most teenagers, Padilla says, she developed a “stubborn” attitude and quit classical violin lessons for about a year. But, like most teenagers, her attitude adjusted and she found her way back to her passion.
“Then I went on to get a classical violin degree” at UNC Greeley, she says.
During and right after college, Padilla played violin with the National Repertory Orchestra, Breckenridge Music Festival, Colorado Music Festival, Colorado Bach Ensemble, Boulder Philharmonic, Fort Collins Symphony and Denver’s Sphere Ensemble. She was even the associate concertmaster of the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra for six years.
She stayed in Greeley after finishing her degree, thinking she wanted to teach classical violin — but the prospect of more school was unappealing. But Greeley’s rich musical community offered her ample opportunity to explore different avenues.
“There weren’t many bluegrass or Texas-style musicians in Greeley at the time — at least not that I knew,” Padilla says. “But eventually I was introduced to Blayne Chastain. He had just gotten back from Ireland, getting a master’s in Irish flute playing, and he was totally gearing up to just play with anyone. Basically he and I met once a week for four years. We started an Irish session that still continues.”
Padilla continued to focus on her passion for folk music of all stripes, founding the American acoustic quintet Masontown (which recorded an LP in 2017), helping to build UNC Greeley’s Folk and Bluegrass Program from the ground up (also starting in 2017), teaching at fiddle camps around the country and, somehow, laying down two solo albums between 2017 and now.
She recorded Fireweed in Idaho with mandolinist and producer Ben Winship. Padilla’s fresh and nuanced approach to folk fiddling, combined with her warm and accessible lyrics, give the album a familiar feel, like coming home after a long day at work or sitting by the fire with friends reminiscing. The album’s title track is a reflection of Padilla’s view of life, a meditation on the growth and wisdom that comes from weathering life’s seasons.
“First the rain, then the snow,” she sings, “It’s been here, I’ve been there, really must I go / To the place we all know? / I’m heading there, it’s too late, darkness I know.”
“Fireweed blooms most of the summer,” she explains over the phone, “but then towards the fall and heading into winter, the blossoms only form at the top, and so when you see the flowers blooming at the top, it’s a symbol that here comes another winter.”
But over the years Padilla has learned that winter, dark and cold as it may be, is a chance to reflect on the bounty of summer and prepare for the hard work of spring. Life is about change, and embracing the seasons of our lives is how we find true peace and contentment — that and listening to good music with good friends.
ON THE BILL: Natalie Padilla — ‘Fireweed’ album release show. 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6., Altona Grange Hall, 9386 N. 39th St., Longmont. Line dancing will follow the concert.
Other chances to see Natalie Padilla: Masontown. 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, Oskar Blues, 303 Main St., Lyons, nataliepadillamusic.com/events